A Shack of Grace

The movie, The Shack received an 18 percent rating from the “top” critics. They say its “sappy and simple-minded,” a Christianity that is “positive, open and loving,” (as if that’s a problem), and an “idealized form of spirituality that’s inclusive, relaxed and open,” again, is this wrong? And, of course, for some it “plods,” and it is “dispiriting” and full of opportunities to “sob for two hours,” which I assume they think is a bad thing. Finally, it “feels like a overly long church sermon.” Wow, if this is true, then take me to church!

My short take: The Shack broke my heart, healed it, made it break again and then brought me into new level of grace and peace.

Yep, it’s not fashionable in the academic world to proclaim that healing and grace and peace are possible but this movie brought this home. It was refreshing in part because “Papa,” as God is known in the book, is played by an African American actor, Octavia Spencer, who was, well, divine. She had a sense of humor, an easy way that allowed Mac to show his pain and rage over the death of his youngest daughter, Missy, and enabled us, even in a short time frame to believe that healing could begin, that tragedy is not the final word, that death is a door, that grace is possible even in the midst of great pain and that one can feel in one’s bones that forgiveness is real.

Our world today is full of terror, the promise of retribution and portents of disaster that it makes us think that movies about redemption are surreal. Hate rules our pubic life like a dirty old coat. It has made me sick sometimes and caused me to put on my own cloak of resentment and anger, and sometimes its deserved. But sometimes we need to go to places where we can let it go, let the dread of our lives slough away.

Well, The Shack did it for me. The story, for those unaware, centers of the tragic loss of a young daughter. Mac and his three kids are on trip to Wallowa State Park in Northeast Oregon, and while Mac is saving his two older kids from a boating accident, his younger daughter, Missy, is taken.

The terror of losing a child is a part of every parents most chilling nightmare and we feel that deep gut wrenching panic, “Oh my God, where is my child.” I experienced just a glimpse of this terror in a Chicago bookstore. My then three year old turned a corner of an aisle, and for about 45 seconds, I couldn’t find her—my heart rate jumped, I felt dizzy and sick all at once, and then, thank God, she appeared.

Well, for Mac, Missy is gone. His wife Nan is not with the family. The police look everywhere and then, only a day or so into the search, Missy’s bloody dress is found in a local mountain cabin—an apparent victim of a roaming child serial killer. This is our worse nightmare. For me it dislodged a dark rush of fear—the recent death of my first wife, the despair of being alone, a partnership cut short and that sick fear that stalks all of us, that we can’t keep the people we love safe. So yeah, I found myself in tears for much of the movie.

The movie tracks Mac’s despair—the whole family moves in a measured carousel of trauma that turns round and round. Mac receives a mysterious card in his mailbox, inviting him back to the very shack where the murder had occurred. The card comes without a stamp, and with no indication of its origin. Okay, it’s cheesy, but yes, there are parts of life that are just that, cheesy, but they are very real.

Mac brings himself to return to the site of his worst fear and that’s where reality begins to curve into another world. As he approaches the snowy shack, it turns into a rustic but enchanting cabin. Mac, in a state of bewilderment meets the three faces of God—Papa, an African American woman, Jesus played by a Middle Eastern man, and the Holy Spirit as an Asian woman. Each of the actors creates a sense of believability that some critics found wanting. I found them a delight. This is a movie that critics had to hate—sometimes the suspension of disbelief is beyond our capabilities, or perhaps we’re too embarrassed to try.

The weekend with the Trinity no doubt sounds like a joke. It is contrived, but I say, there are things that are stranger than this. And I’ll tell you why. I haven’t written publicly about this experience, but maybe it is time for me to come out of the shadows. I’ve had a mystical experience that has colored and framed my life since. The weekend at the cabin became a parable of my own spiritual experience.

My experience: It occurred in my early 40’s. Life wasn’t working for me. It was impossible to get a position in academia. I was a young father—the dilemma—how to hustle and provide for my family, all the while knowing that my life had missed its target. I graduated with a PhD from the University of Chicago Divinity School, mentored by the best-known figure in my field. But there was no job. This precipitated a classic mid-life crisis. While many of my peers were well into their careers I was floundering. It led to moments of epic despair. I thought, at least fleetingly, that one solution might be driving my car into a tree.

When those thoughts appeared, I knew it was time to get some help. I had thought of going to a spiritual director previously but I had always put it off. Not this time. I knew of an older woman with a reputation as a sage advisor. I went to see her and our times together were not talk therapy, but meditation, where quite literally she’d have me close my eyes and we would meditate—she asked me pay attention to what would come up.

Much did. I experienced a deep sense of loneliness, and absence of love in my childhood, a time of mourning for love that I simply didn’t receive or know in my growing up. My baby boomer parents had no idea how to care for my emotions, or how to respond to the isolation and dislocation that many of us went through in the turbulent 1960s and 1970s. They had little ability to help me negotiate the trials of teenage years in a culture that was in thunderous change.

The spiritual director and I met once a week for two months. We had touched many parts of my past that had hobbled me and sent me reeling. At the beginning of our third month, something broke through. I’ve always been a spiritual searcher and a Christian of sorts. I read the whole Bible in Junior High, went to Seminary, read Soren Kierkegaard, Simone Weil, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and a host of other authors trying to find my way. But on this day, in meditation, something happened, that went far beyond any rational understanding of faith.

I had my Shack meeting with grace. In meditation, I was quiet and resting, and then quite suddenly, in my mind’s eye, as real as the Multnomah Falls which are featured in the movie, a flood of light appeared to my imagination. And I said to my counselor, “Hey, I see a shower of light.” She asked me if I wanted to be in it, and I said, after some thought, “Well, yes.” Boom, like a powerful flow of water, the light came over me and filled me with the most exquisite sense of love and peace and09a77f017a5d2287c0ff852fe0819d00 light that I had ever known. I have never experienced anything like this before or since. As it reigned down on me, I sensed, as clearly as anything that I have ever felt, two figures come up from behind me. And yes, this will sound quite bazaar to some, but I knew them to be Jesus and Moses. Both were quiet and calm and powerful. They had a white robe and they put it upon me and began to move me into an area that I can only describe as a mountain clearing. All the while this was happening, I was in tears of love and joy, overwhelmed by the goodness and grace of their presences.

They escorted me to the ring of the mountain and I joined a chorus of others in robes of light, appearing to look upward as the shower of light and love came raining down on us. No words were ever spoken, no obvious communication was made other than the deepest sense of peace and love I have ever felt in my life.

This was neither drug-induced nor in any way expected or something I have experienced ever again. Like I said, my Shack experience. I’ve heard since that others have gone through similar or very similar moments.

What did it mean? A simple answer: be in grace and peace and love with others as far as I am able on my part. I have not always managed to pull this off. But it did start a journey in me that love and reconciliation are, in the end, what life is about. There is nothing that is more ultimate. My record of success is mixed. But I know that this is all there is in the end. Can we be reconciled to the Light that is available to us all, and can we let this light lead us to reconciliation with others?

For me, this comes through the Christian faith, but I have no doubt, others, both secular and in other faith traditions, can do it as well. So I make no judgments that I am right and others are wrong. Arrogance is the great acid test of sincere faith, and humility the great marker of people who know wisdom. Again, I have often failed but I know where I want to go.

The Shack, and Mac’s meeting with the figures of the Christian Trinity, reminded me over and over again, that our task in life is to forgive, to be reconciled, to work through our pain and our resentment. Each of us is called to learn and to love the people that are given to us; we must forgive them and ourselves or be devoured by resentment. We are to live into light as the only way toward healing in this life. If all we do is critique and sneer at others, we become nothing more than bores or worse, good for making others and ourselves a soggy, sad mess.

I want to love and bring light. I’ve seen enough death up close to know that way. I know its finality. I have been given the great gift of a second chance at love, and I could not be more grateful. I have two daughters who have forgiven me and taught me to love and I cherish every day that I get to be their dad.

I have work that is an amazing challenge. I have friends whom I cherish.

So, yeah, is The Shack a sappy movie, sure it is. But if all we are in life is cynical then we may be respected for being smart critics, but in the end we are left with a sort of mild unhappiness, and our joy comes from sharing that cynicism with others. For me that is a sad life. And I know there is much more to life than just a sad, cynical world.

I’ve studied and experienced a world that is within and beyond this one, and that world is good, and healing and full. Why wouldn’t we want to know it? What wouldn’t we want to be healed, to be ambassadors of reconciliation? Why wouldn’t we want to forgive, to be grace to others, to walk mercifully and be agents of justice and love in the world?

There is way through the darkness and there is light in us that can be found. I hope we don’t let cynicism win. I hope that we each find the light and let this light shine and let love win.

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